New kind of Israeli politician? Yair Lapid doesn't talk about Iran, Palestinians

Israelis are accustomed to retired military generals parachuting into politics and shaking things up. But now, as the country gears up for new elections in four months, the field has been scrambled by a new kind of would-be hero: a hunky former TV news columnist named Yair Lapid.

Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party holds a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls, Mr. Lapid relies on a carefully cultivated image as the everyman of a new generation of Israelis. He doesn't talk much about Iran, or the conflict with Palestinians, but instead focuses on improving Israeli society. He has launched a new party called "There's a future" and challenges his followers to dream and not listen to cynics.

“He reminds us of what Israel could have been or should be. For the Israelis masses, he is willing to make concessions for peace, but still has a backbone. He is willing to fight for secular Jews, but doesn’t forget we have a Jewish people,” says Israel Waismel-Manor, a political science professor at the University of Haifa. “He is a man’s man: he boxes, and goes to the gym; but in some respects he’s a feminist – he adores his wife and supports women’s rights.”

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At his inaugural campaign rally this week, Lapid gave an address that mixed optimism reminiscent of President Obama’s 2008 campaign with the self-confident stage presence of Mr. Netanyahu. Echoing the spirit of last summer's mass protests, Lapid’s address focused on the hot-button issue of ultra-Orthodox pulling their weight in Israeli society while avoiding foreign policy issues entirely.

Polished and charismatic, he is bidding to become the new standard-bearer of the Israeli center by tapping into middle-class frustration that fueled last year’s protests over socioeconomic inequality. He is seeking to fill the vacuum after the fall of Tzipi Livni, the former prime ministerial candidate who was unseated as leader of the centrist Kadima party – in part because of her silence over the protests.

"I embrace every person that gets up and goes out of their house to fight for the principles they believe in," said Lapid in his stump speech, held at Tel Aviv University and attended by activists from his new party. "However, the solution is not outside the political system but inside the political system."

But while Lapid's entrance into the race gives some hope, it could also further fracture the center-left opposition to Mr. Netanyahu and prevent it from mounting a credible challenge.

Critics: He represents the people of the cafés

According to recent polls, Lapid’s party could get 12 of the 120 parliamentary seats. Its support comes largely from Israelis disillusioned with Ms. Livni and Kadima, which won the largest parliamentary bloc in the 2009 election but is poised to lose more than half their seats.

A key to Lapid’s success will be inspiring youths who jammed into tents on the boulevards of Tel Aviv last year despite years of alienation from elections and political parties.

“He is trying to be a voice of last summer's protest, a voice of the young and the people who didn’t go to vote,” says Daniel Ben Simon, a lawmaker from the Labor Party. “He represents a generation that stayed away from politics – mostly Tel Aviv and its vicinity. This is a new phenomena because people don’t expect him to deal with the Middle East, but internal issues.”

The socioeconomic protest last year was driven by frustration about the rising cost of living for the Israeli middle and working classes. Protesters blamed government passivity and the greed of a small group of moguls who control a large chunk of the Israeli economy.

Lapid could run into trouble there, as critics have faulted his friendships with some of Israel’s biggest business tycoons. Roy Arad, a columnist for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, called him the candidate of "capital."

He's also perceived by some as unrepresentative of Israelis. Taxi driver Itzik Levy says Lapid’s appeal is limited to the liberal elites of Tel Aviv. “If he represents anyone, he represents the people of the cafés.”   

'Our principle is simple: Everyone must serve'

But Lapid's message resonates strongly with people like Tzipi Kerem, who signed up as a activist for Lapid's campaign after not voting during the last election.

“He touches on issues at the existential foundation of the state – like the middle class, like education and the budget,” she said, sitting in the aisle of a packed auditorium before the Lapid campaign event May 1. “He gives a chance to believe that there someone who can fix what’s broken in the Israeli system.”

Lapid devoted his speech to unveiling a bill aimed at requiring every Israeli youth to do some form of national service, whether in the military or in local hospitals and schools.

The reform is aimed primarily at eliminating draft exemptions for military service for tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox students who are instead subsidized by the government to continue religious study. (It would also make national civilian service mandatory for Israel’s Arab minority.)

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“Our principle is simple: Everyone must serve,” said Lapid, to a standing ovation. Then addressing ultra-Orthodox youths, he added, “We can’t continue to subsidize you.”   

Lapid is following in the footsteps of his late father, Mordechai, a newspaper editor and blunt political commentator who got into politics in the late '90s and became the leader of the third-largest parliamentary bloc by running a highly negative campaign against the ultra-Orthodox.   

But the younger Lapid has a more carefully crafted appeal as the voice of modern young Israelis. In an effort to calm ultra-Orthodox groups, he declared this week that he will not come with a “tank” into their enclaves.

Mr. Waismel-Manor says that Lapid’s challenge will be to recreate the excitement of last summer and lure new voters to the polls. Despite the success of the protests in shifting the political agenda to domestic issues, the movement hasn’t been harnessed by any political party.

He explained, “If he can pull that off, it will be a major event, which will have consequences for the balance of power.”